Tanks for Memory

Claremont (June 20, 2013) - To the uninitiated, Harley-Davidson motorcycles® are simply motorcycles. To fans and owners of this great American product they are, among other things, rolling showcases of historical design, art and technology. There is nothing better to represent these three elements than the humble fuel tank. And while the ‘peanut’ and ‘teardrop’ Harley-Davidson tanks are the best known and loved, you have to remember there are 110 years of fuel tank design, fabrication and styles to have come out of Milwaukee.

The very first fuel tanks were definitely a case of function rather than form. Production costs meant they were nothing more than box-like items designed to hold necessary fluids of oil and petrol. Even at this stage though, Harley-Davidson was all about the rider. The part of the tank nearest to the rider was soon shaped down to allow the rider to sit lower and to move his centre of gravity forward to help with the handling. Stylistic design wasn’t considered back in the early 1900s – mostly because bike production couldn’t keep pace with demand and so every model had the same tank design. There was also the fact the left side of the fuel tank was always partially obscured by the gear lever/shift gate system.

Eventually, creative styling became more and more part of Harley-Davidson motorcycle design. If you’re going to lure customers you might as well make a motorcycle unique/different. This shift to new shapes and styles also came about with changes in chassis design to accommodate new engines, drivelines, steering assemblies, revised seating positions and more. The era of classic tank shapes, paint styles and logos had begun, and looks likely to never stop as long as man has an eye for creativity.



1903 saw the first bike appear with a ‘tank’, which was little more than a box-like vessel for oil and petrol. It straddled the upper frame rail and featured leather straps for anchor points. This design ran until 1908 when the ‘squared’ tank was introduced. It was mounted between the upper frame rail and front down tubes.

From 1912 to 1915, Harleys featured a new ‘squared’ tank. This was angled sharply downwards towards the rider to allow for a lower seating position – previous models had tall seats due to the bicycle-based frame design. The acute lines of the early tanks started to smooth out in 1916; sharp creases became formed curves with improved production technology.

In 1919, a graphic was first used instead of the basic brand name logo. The graphic consisted of the first ‘shield’ design and appeared on the W Sport model.


1922 heralded the start of tank customisation when the factory made it possible for customers to order their bike in multi-colours for $4 extra and followed this with $30 painted finishes to the customer’s choice providing they could supply a colour sample which the factory could match.

The first basic form of the ‘teardrop’ tank shape we know and love today appeared in 1925. This new streamlined look was a huge selling point for Harley-Davidson.

The Art Deco era hit Harley-Davidson in 1933 and was represented with the first truly decorative paint schemes and the introduction of the Eagle motif.



Two major events happened in1936: 1) the second generation of the ‘teardrop tank appeared, and 2) gauges appeared on the fuel tank assembly. It was also the advent of the ‘flying wheel’ logo, which has become one of the most iconic tank logos in H-D history.

The first view of the gorgeous curved two-tone paint scheme was in 1939. And in 1940, the very first metal tank badge appeared.

1946 saw the appearance of what is known as the ‘peanut’ tank, although if truth be known the ‘peanut’ tag didn’t evolve until many years later. This new tank appeared on the 125/S model but wasn’t actually a Harley-Davidson design! It was taken from a DKW motorcycle after Harley-Davidson acquired the right to manufacture DKW copies after WW II. The first enamel decorated cloisonné tank badge surfaced and was prominent on Sportster models.

1970 to today

1970 brought on first use of the Sportster logotype on a peanut tank.

The Sportster of 1971 became the first and only ever production model to wear the famous ‘Number 1’ logo – although an OE part, many dealers replaced the standard tanks of showroom bikes for this version.

A ‘flame’ paint scheme was used for the first time in 1980 on a Wide Glide. Cost of the 12-step painting process at the time was high and kept further flame-designs pegged to a minimum.


1988 was celebrated with the 85th Anniversary of Harley-Davidson and this was the first time a fuel tank carried acknowledgement to an Anniversary year.

Harley-Davidson Customer Vehicle Operations (CVO) came on line in 1999 and with these tricked-up bikes came exclusive – to the point of rare – paint schemes and has become tradition.

2012 has seen the re-emergence of 1960s aftermarket metal flake paint in the form of Hard Candy Custom. First used on the new Sportster Seventy-Two, for 2013 three more models will be available in gold, red and green large metal flake colour schemes.